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October 18, 2013

New Autopilot Technology for Boats

Innovations brings easier operating and more efficiency in boat steering.

Autopilots, useful as they are, have at times enjoyed a reputation as quirky, perhaps the most user-unfriendly electronic component available on fishing boats, even though when correctly set up and calibrated, they did manage to drive the boat. Now things have changed. Currently, all the companies that build them are rapidly wrestling, tweaking and developing the autopilot not only into submission, but also into solid citizens that play well with others. What’s more, the autopilot is emerging as an ­essential element in navigational and steering systems.

Fresh Start

The newest to hit the market is Raymarine’s Evolution autopilot, which completely replaces its previous autopilot line. “The big news on Evolution is our new sensor technology, based around our new EV Sensor core,” says Raymarine’s Jim Hands. The EV Sensor replaces the traditional flux-gate compass that has been at the heart of autopilot technology for decades, and it’s a lot less persnickety. It’s not subject to magnetic fields on the boat or the environment, it can be mounted anywhere, and it has powerful capabilities. 

The EV core is a nine-axis heading sensor that monitors boat movement in all directions, essentially a 3-D sensor. It’s driven by a set of sophisticated motion-analysis algorithms, Evolution AI, designed by parent company FLIR’s motion-control engineers. The basic technology is aerospace derived, and it has recently seen a lot of success as the key ­guidance system in “autonomous vehicles,” which the rest of us know as drones. 

In combination, the EV ­Sensor and Evolution AI gather data on boat motion and sea conditions, and instantly adapt to them to more efficiently steer the boat. The paired technologies also eliminate the need for linearization — the initial calibration runs required to set up a traditional autopilot for the particular boat it is installed in. It’s basically a plug-and-play system, says Hands. “It also eliminates the need for complicated calibration, so an Evolution autopilot can be set up in a just few minutes and does not require a long tweaking and adjustment-laden sea trial. After you install it, just complete a quick dockside setup, and you are ready to go,” he says.

The new pilots, surprisingly, are less expensive that the former generation of pilots, starting at $1,499. An EV-100 hydraulic system, the one most fishing boats would use, is priced about $500 less that the system it replaced, says Hands. Three separate steering modes, Leisure, Cruising and Performance, control how aggressively the autopilot sticks to its course. Leisure, for example allows for 15 to 20 feet of drift off-course before it corrects. This comes down to power-consumption draw and fuel ­consumption, says Hands. 

With the release of Raymarine’s LightHouse version 7 software in July, all MFDs can act as full-function Evolution autopilot control heads, handy when dash space is limited. The optional p70R control head not only provides a backup, but the knob on the head becomes a functional steering wheel.